Religious horror is one of the most effective horror subgenres. No matter what religion a movie is exploring, the very idea of faith being turned into a nightmare you can’t escape from is inherently ready for some thought-provoking ideas, imagery, and scares. “Immaculate,” the new nun horror movie starring and produced by Sydney Sweeney, fails to stand out among other religious horror movies, relying instead on cheap and uninspired jump scares, and marred by pacing issues and a superficial exploration of what makes Catholicism scary. It never provides a cohesive narrative to support the genuinely interesting and bonkers ending to this Italian convent nightmare.

It’s not like the idea of horrors inside a convent isn’t already a prime setting for scares. An isolated place where only women reside, but controlled by men, belonging to an institution with a millennia-long history of abuse, is ripe for horror. This we see in the first scene, where a nun tries to escape the convent, steals a set of keys and almost makes it past the property grounds before her ankle is horribly broken by a group of nuns in red masks, who then take their sister away as she screams in terror. This is no supernatural movie about a vengeful spirit or a demonic pact like “The Nun.” Instead, it is people and belief itself that are worth fearing.

Andrew Lobel’s script, which Sweeney had auditioned for years ago but didn’t get made until now, centers on the young and impressionable Sister Cecilia, an American nun who becomes the focal point of an Italian convent — remember, in Hollywood, all of Catholicism revolves around Americans, despite low membership numbers compared to any other country in the world. Cecilia is deeply devoted to her mission, believing it was God’s will that she survived a horrible childhood accident where she fell through ice and was briefly declared dead. She arrives at the convent ready to devote her life to a higher calling, to serve in what is essentially a hospice for aging nuns. She gets here after being scouted and recommended by the handsome Father Sal Tadeschi (Álvaro Morte). If nothing else, at least the place looks stunning, with romantic architecture and that old European building charm that is equal parts alluring and sinister, where tourists would line up for hours to take a picture, but locals know not to get close at night.

Still, she hasn’t yet mastered the language, so she misses a lot of the early red flags, the ominous way her sisters talk about ceremonies and body qualities. Especially in the beginning, “Immaculate” does have something to say about control, about women’s agency, and the patriarchal nature of organized religion. Everyone wants something from Sister Cecilia, everyone wants to keep her down in some way, and she has no say in any aspect of her new life. 

The customs officers at the airport interrogate her for an unusual amount of time upon seeing a young, beautiful woman saying she is here to stay indefinitely as a nun — “such a waste,” one of the officers remarks. The other sisters look at Cecilia with jealousy. The Father who inspired her trip commends Cecilia for her devotion, even as he and the guards won’t allow her to leave the premises even to visit a hospital. The Mother Superior (Dora Romano) continuously carries around a suspicious red file with Sister Cecilia’s picture on it. Cardinal Franco (Giorgio Colangeli), who officiates Sister Cecilia’s wedding to Christ, forces her to kiss his ring. Even before Cecilia starts being spooked at night, there is a mundane eerieness to the entire situation and setting.

Things get further complicated when, in her second day at the convent, Sister Cecilia discovers she’s pregnant. After initial skepticism and some gross and thorough examination, the convent decides the pregnancy is an immaculate conception, and the child is the literal second coming of Christ himself. Sister Cecilia is now revered as the new Virgin Mary, the resentment from her sisters only growing, but not even her holy status can protect her from the dark secrets of the convent.

Clocking in at 88 minutes, it feels almost sacrilegious to say this, but “Immaculate” should have maybe been longer. There’s something missing in the script to connect the table setting of the first act and the bonkers turn in the third act. Though Sweeney delivers a good performance as the naive Cecilia and then becomes an effective and badass scream queen, there is a big chunk of her story missing here. Likewise, a lot of the horror imagery early on teases pay-offs we never see, like a fingernail that falls off and a tooth getting spat out that are never explained. When is the movie set? What do the red masks mean? “Immaculate” is not interested in providing an answer for any of this, and it does not provide a distinct enough horror atmosphere beyond cheap jump scares to compensate for that lack of answers.

Director Michael Mohan is clearly drawing inspiration from ’70s horror, particularly the works of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Roman Polanski, but the movie doesn’t do much more than just remind you of other, better movies. “Immaculate” shares a lack of exposition with the movies that inspired it, but it also lacks the exquisite vibes and memorable visual style that made “Suspiria” a classic. The cinematography is muted, the landscapes rigid and there is no color or compelling framing.  

That being said, Will Bates delivers a fantastic score that has hints of Goblin’s work on “Suspiria” while doing enough new things to feel fresh, like a use of a choir, what sounds like a children’s song composed in hell, and even a horror version of “Shchedryk,” also known as “Carol of the Bells.”

Roman Catholicism is all about how pain and agony are essential to the faith — Mother Superior even says early on that “suffering is love.” The film hints at an exploration of these ideas, particularly through the introduction of the convent’s most sacred relic, a supposed nail from Christ’s cross. At its best, “Immaculate” delivers a bonkers yet unsurprising twist with huge repercussions for the film’s portrayal of religion, which is in the vein of recent horror stories that take Catholic canon into wildly imaginative and otherworldly places like “The Pope’s Exorcist,” and the excellent TV shows “Evil” and “30 Coins.” It is in the third act that “Immaculate” delivers a gonzo, rock-smashing, fiery, crucifix-stabbing, and all-out bloody good time. Unfortunately, by that point, it’s too late to save the soul of this movie, which is condemned not to go to hell, but remain in dull horror movie purgatory.

Score: D+

“Immaculate” premiered at SXSW 2024. It will be released by Neon on March 22.

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